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Cady Wells’ paintings show a darker side of New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Georgia O’Keeffe told Cady Wells he wasn’t ready to show his work at New York’s prestigious An American Place Gallery in 1937, he vented to a friend in fury.

“He wanted to strangle her,” Wells biographer Lois Rudnick said.

"Untitled (New Mexico Landscape)," 1934, watercolor on paper by Cady Wells. Artist Cady Wells in 1948. (SOURCE: Phillippe Halsman and the New Mexico Museum Of Art)

“Untitled (New Mexico Landscape),” 1934, watercolor on paper by Cady Wells. Artist Cady Wells in 1948. (SOURCE: Phillippe Halsman and the New Mexico Museum Of Art)

By the 1940s, O’Keeffe changed her mind about the painter, praising him in a catalog essay for his first New York show:

“I believe we are the two best painters working in our part of the country.”

Opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art on Saturday, March 25, “Cady Wells: Ruminations” showcases 22 of Wells’ watercolors from the museum’s collection. The artist’s style evolved from cubist-inspired geometrics to haunting, jewel-toned expressions of surrealism.

Wells fell in love with the Southwest in 1922. His wealthy parents shipped their gay son off to an Arizona boys’ ranch to “toughen him up.”

In 1932, he settled in northern New Mexico, where his watercolors wove tightly choreographed meditations on the New Mexico landscape forged by music, calligraphy and stained glass. They darkened later, reflecting the trauma of serving in World War II, his terror at the experiments at Los Alamos and sexual intolerance.

In his own lane

"Tree/Lane Reverse, Abstract Study," 1933 by Cady Wells, Gift of the Cady Wells Estate. (SOURCE: The New Mexico Museum Of Art)

“Tree/Lane Reverse, Abstract Study,” 1933 by Cady Wells, Gift of the Cady Wells Estate. (SOURCE: The New Mexico Museum Of Art)

Born to a well-to-do Massachusetts family, Wells defied traditional New England expectations, dropping out of five boarding schools. Although he was afforded all the advantages of a child of privilege, he was the family rebel who trained to become a classical pianist. His father sent him to a psychiatrist to “cure” his homosexuality when he was in his 20s, telling him both the piano and painting were too effeminate. Wells traveled, pursuing the theater and design, before joining the Santa Fe arts community between the wars.

“He had studied in Asia, and he was influenced by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy,” said Christian Waguespack, the museum’s 20th century art curator. “He does that same thing O’Keeffe does in that he picks his subject and zooms in on it.”

In Santa Fe, Wells studied with the modernist Andrew Dasburg, an early American exponent of cubism. He befriended the artist E. Boyd, who advised him on collecting Spanish colonial art. Later, his donated collection would become foundational to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. He restored a old Spanish home in Jaconda, north of Tesuque, with the services of famed architect John Gaw Meem.

After Wells returned from the carnage of the war with post-traumatic stress disorder, his work turned visceral. His dynamic style of angular zigzags and lyrical ellipses suggests his anguish, as well as a multiplicity of influences.

“Cady had a very dark vision of New Mexico,” Rudnick said. “There’s so much darkness in the acid greens and the browns. Part of this comes out of his struggles as a young man who was never entirely comfortable in his own skin.”

"Head of Santo," circa 1939, oil and watercolor on paper by Cady Wells. Gift of the Cady Wells Estate. (SOURCE: The New Mexico Museum Of Art)

“Head of Santo,” circa 1939, oil and watercolor on paper by Cady Wells. Gift of the Cady Wells Estate. (SOURCE: The New Mexico Museum Of Art)

It was while working in Taos that Wells introduced a more somber, spiritual layer into his work. In “Untitled (New Mexico Landscape),” 1934, silhouetted figures resembling Asian shadow puppets morph with darkened adobe doorways. Murky, angular forms and jagged, shifting mountain peaks dissect the landscape, evoking an exotic, closed-off culture shrouded in secrecy.

This mystery was likely a reference to the Penitente brotherhood of New Mexico, said Catherine Whitney, the show’s curator at Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art exhibition last year. The Catholic sect practiced self-flagellation and simulated crucifixion, practices outlawed by the church in 1925.

“He lived in this epicenter of profound religious activity with Chimayó just up the road,” Rudnick said. “They had such a profound sense of how tragic and frail human life is. Cady was fascinated by a spirituality that seemed so deeply real.”

“Untitled,” 1938, resembles musical staff paper as much as the staggered fields of New Mexico. You can almost see the blood in his burgundy-hued “Head of Santo,” circa 1939.

“He added this kind of calligraphic line to the landscape,” Whitney said. “They’re almost syncopated.”

Life after war

Wells returned from the war in 1945 unable to paint, complaining of what he called “the damn octopus of readjustment.”

He had worked as an aerial cartographer across both Germany and France, growing increasingly distraught at officers who considered enlisted men little more than cannon fodder, Rudnick said.

At home, he became obsessed with the activity at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Wells saw the birth of the world in the convulsions of New Mexico’s volcanoes and calderas, in its mountains and mesas. He also saw its destruction.

He was the only artist who grasped the fact that a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth could be annihilated in minutes.

“He called Los Alamos the sewer bed of scientists,” Rudnick said. “His house literally shook from the explosions on the Pajarito Plateau. He was convinced he was living on the ground zero of the end of the world.”

Some of the works emit a radioactive glow.

“Tree Trunk (Bleak Tree),” undated, gleams with an eerie, if not malevolent, luminescence.

Despite Wells’ critical stature, his work never kindled the public fame of an O’Keeffe or a John Marin or even the transcendentalist Raymond Jonson. He received his greatest acclaim after the war, boasting 17 solo and 130 group shows, many of them national, showing with stars like Jackson Pollock.

“I think a lot of why he’s not known is that his work does not fit into any of the popular categories such as New Mexico landscapes,” Rudnick said. “It’s not pretty. It’s so outside the box. He was telling a story that no other artist was telling about the state of New Mexico.”

Wells died of a heart attack in Santa Fe in 1954, a few days shy of his 50th birthday.